Who was Alice Mason and Why did this gentleman wish he never asked?


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

Alice Mason
Portrait by John Singer Sargent - 1885
(United States Public Domain)

She was born June 18, 1838 in Boston the daughter of Jonathan Mason (1795-1884) and Isabella Weyman (1806-1860). Her father was a well-known resident of Boston. He started his education at Harvard but his health hindered him in his study. With a wealthy family background he traveled to Europe purchasing a number of art treasures. He had three children with his first-born son, Herbert Copeland dying within two years of his life. Another son also named Herbert Copeland left Harvard in 1861 to join the Thirteenth Regiment of the Massachusetts Infantry. He was in command of his company at Gettysburg when “at the highest and furthest point which the forces of the Confederacy ever reached - he received a severe wound, which almost cost him his life, and which lamed them for the rest of his days”. {4} He lived until 1884 when it was believed his injury finally claimed his life, and last but not least in the family was Alice Mason.

In 1957 she married her cousin William Sturgis Hooper (1833-1863) son of Samuel Hooper (1808-1875) and Anne Sturgis (1813-1884). The father of Ann Sturgis was a captain of a merchant ship and one year after her birth he had to fight off Chinese pirates on the coast of Macau. Ironically the ship was owned by Theodore Lyman the grandfather of Theodore Lyman III (1833–1897) an aide-de-camp to General George Meade.

Their wedded life would prove short. During the war Hooper served as an aide to General Nathaniel Banks. Unfortunately when he entered the army he was already suffering from fragile health which finally caught up with him on September 24, 1863. When he died he left behind his wife and daughter Isabella Weyman born on January 7, 1859.

In the summer of 1864, Alice Mason Hooper went to Washington, D.C. where she volunteered in the military hospitals. She offered her services as a nurse and whenever time allowed she visited the hospitals in and around the Washington area. It was here where her life would take another turn when she met her next husband.


Charles Sumner (1811-1874)
(United States Public Domain)

Charles Sumner was twenty-seven years old when Alice Mason was born. His parents were both born in poor families but Charles Pinckney Sumner (1776-1839) managed to attend Harvard College and became an attorney in Boston. Charles Sumner at the end of the Civil War was a “fifty-four confirmed bachelor”. At the age of fifty-five in October of 1866, to the shock of his colleagues and friends, Sumner wed the twenty-eight year old daughter of Jonathan Mason and widow of William Hooper. Despite the age differences the Washington wedding was said to be the “social event” of the season. As it was reported the Belle of Washington Society married to the:

“most conspicuous and still the most handsome member of the Senate.” {6}

As fast as you can “build a pile of rocks” this marriage would be the “cherry on top”! It’s hard to know where to begin on the unwinding of this marriage. First was the “life-long confirmed bachelor”, as he had never demonstrated even a remote interest for ladies throughout his life. There had been a time when he was an “admirer” of the young and beautiful daughter of his friend Salmon Chase, but Kate managed to surround herself with admirers and most of the time it was for political gain rather than anything else.

The second obstacle was the age difference. At twenty-eight Alice is full of life and fun. While in Washington she had been introduced to parties and dances and at an age when Charles Sumner has been accustomed to a more sedate and quiet evening at home he was never going to keep pace with a young socialite.

The third concern of this relationship were the personalities of the two individuals. Sumner never understood or cared to see his wife’s sense of humor, while Alice could not control her temper and never even tried.

Within a year this marriage is drifting to those rocks! Alice had already moved in another relationship with Baron Friedrich von Holstein who was serving as a Prussian diplomat in Washington. Holstein was recalled to Prussia in 1867 and Alice accused his recall to her politically connected husband. He denied the charge. By the following year, Alice left to spend some time in Europe while Sumner was left with his shattered reputation and it was only going to get worse. Soon rumors began to rumble that he “could not satisfy his wife” and he retained the moniker of “The Great Impotent”. How the mighty had fallen.

There was open warfare now. Charles Sumner obtained an uncontested divorce on May 10, 1873 on the ground of desertion. Less than a year later on March 11, 1874 Sumner died after suffering a heart attack. He was sixty-three years of age.


Meanwhile - Alice Mason Hooper Sumner headed for Europe with her daughter. Alice enjoyed the European cities of London and Paris. She moved among the elite American exiles that had fled there after the war. She became friends with artist John Singer Sargent who painted the portrait at the top of this thread. She spent the end of her life with her daughter in Scotland where Isabella had married Edward Balfour. Alice died in 1913 at the age of seventy-four. The marriage still leaves people puzzled to this day. What could have been a long career for Charles Sumner will always have an asterisk for the disaster that was his marriage. Charles was buried in Cambridge, Alice lies in peace in Scotland separated in death as they were in life.

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1. https://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/digital/collection/p16057coll2
3. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144640717/jonathan-mason
4. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144610615/herbert-copeland-mason
5. The First of Hearts: Selected Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams 1865-1883, by Marian Adams, Ward Thoron
6. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post Civil War America, by Garrett Epps
{*} Photos - Wikipedia